I can still recall the two occasions I had to “perform” in the WOC studios. The first time, I was a fifth grader from Harrison Elementary School in Davenport, Iowa, and certain “select” students from Mrs. Iverson’s math class were in the studio, along with our teacher, to be guests on a local programming show. It was a Sunday morning, and we were to demonstrate the use of manipulatives as a learning tool in the study of “new math”. She rehearsed us well, and I practiced for days.
Suddenly, we were on-the-air, the lights were blazing hot, all the children were petrified, and Mrs Iverson was chatting comfortably with the hostess. Several students had their turns in front of the camera, and then she turned to me.
“Now, Charles, why don’t you show us how we use the blocks to see how multiplication works.”
“Okay, Mrs. Iverson,” I chirped. I then sweated my way to the chalkboard, where she had written: 6×6=. Next to the board was a small table full of little wooden tiles, and a slanted board on which to arrange them.
“When our teacher gives us a problem like this one,” I began.
(the camera started rolling in closer)
“we…we make a row this way for the first number…”
“and…uh…this way for the second number…
“and that’s how we can tell that six times six equals thirty-two.” (Whew.)
“Thirty-six,” she whispered.
“Thirty-six!” I shrieked.
Doom! Despair, and Agony on me!
I would have slunk back into the shadows, but there were none. I’m thankful, now, that those were the days of black and white television, lest the beacon of my embarrassment cast an eerie red glow across the set. I didn’t hear any snickering, back amongst my peers, but I could tell some of them were shaking their heads. One girl in particular, who had coveted my major speaking role, had a look of smug satisfaction on her face.
I was quite certain that I would never be able to show my face around town again, not realizing yet that the sum total of the viewing audience for such an early Sunday morning program was probably ten. Nevertheless, I was scarred.
The second time I was in the WOC studios went much better. I was twenty years older, and it was our church’s turn to “fill the pulpit”, or at least the 7:30 a.m. time slot on (what else?) Sunday morning. I was usually a tenor in the choir, but our choir director was scheduled to be out of town that day. I was chosen to fill in. It was no big deal, really, because our choir never looks at the director anyway, so my job was to simply wave my arms, point once in a while, and act like I knew what I was doing.
I performed flawlessly. From the back. From the front. Camera in. Camera out. Before the Preacher uttered a word, all seventeen people watching at home got to hear our renowned choir, singing to the beat of a human metronome. Piece of cake.
Why the difference? Was it the knowledge that nobody watches this public service stuff? It’s not for nothing that these are the bargain basement hours for advertising revenues. No, it was because I had learned how to play along, to laugh at myself.
About five years after my epic fail, I was in an algebra class, trying to multi-task, before multi-tasking was in vogue. (I’ve found out since, that I tend to think better in boxes, so I now leave the multi-tasking to my talented wife, with her everything-is-related-to-everything-else brain.
“What?!” I say.
“Oh, I’ve segued,” she says.
“Could you, like, give me some sort of a signal or something when you’re going to do that?”
“If you thought more like a woman, you wouldn’t need any clues.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m kind of addicted to antecedents. Just put me back in my box, and I’ll be happy.”)
That probably doesn’t count as multi-tasking, but back to my algebra class. In the middle of my daydreaming, Mr. Miller called my name…twice.
“Uh…thirty-six,” I stammered (there’s that number again).
He immediately broke into unrestrained laughter, as if I’d just delivered a totally unexpected punchline.
“Why sure,” he said through his chuckling, “If you’re not paying attention, just take a wild stab in the dark. Who knows? You might make a lucky guess.”
I had wanted to protest that I was paying attention, but by now I’d noticed that the rest of the class was laughing too—as if I had said something really clever, instead of something really stupid. In that moment, I just shrugged my shoulders, and smiled. The guy sitting behind me slapped me on the back. I had become a class hero for the day. I had learned how to recognize an opportunity and play along, to let people laugh with me instead of at me.
I found that if you laugh at yourself first, that it diffuses the embarrassment that comes from doing something bone-headed. Victor Borge, the brilliant concert pianist, would often smack himself on the forehead right in the middle of playing a beautiful piece of music, as if he had made a mistake. He had not. Instead, his rare self-deprecating humor was seen as pure joy, conveying the message that the pursuit of perfection is not nearly as important as enjoying life. Learning to laugh at ourselves is a good place to start.